A Content Analysis of the Portrayal of
India in Films Produced in the West
Department of Communication, Texas A&M University, College Station, Texas, USA
A content analysis of randomly selected films (N ¼24) about India
produced from 19302000 in the US or UK was undertaken to
examine the social construction of ‘‘Indian-ness.’’ There were
significant inter-group differences in depictions of Indian versus
non-Indian scenes (N ¼1016) and Indian versus non-Indian
characters (N ¼421) across several socio-cultural variables such
as character role, occupation, poverty, religious practices, and
pollution. Overall, India was consistently portrayed as backward,
uncivilized, savage, and traditional. These patterns of stereotypical
portrayals of India across films are discussed in the context of
schema theory, social identity theory, and cultural colonization.
KEYWORDS media portrayals, stereotypes, films, content
Our understanding about other cultures and nations around the world is
often colored by our memory of these places that we have received through
mediated visual information (Mitra, 1999). Although numerous inter-related
social forces might contribute to our perceptions of others, mass media por-
trayals undoubtedly play a very important role in influencing people’s atti-
tudes towards out-groups, especially when presented in very realistic ways
in media such as films.
Films play an important role in shaping ethnic and national identities,
especially in the absence of much face-to-face interactions with these groups.
They help to create and perpetuate national stereotypes. For example, it
would not be surprising if many Americans learn about Africans through
Tarzan films, about Arabs from movies such as The Mummy, about China
Address correspondence to Dr. Srividya Ramasubramanian, Department of Communi-
cation, 211 Bolton, 4234 TAMU, Texas A&M University, College Station, TX 77843-4234.
The Howard Journal of Communications, 16:243265, 2005
Copyright #Taylor & Francis Inc.
ISSN: 1064-6175 print/1096-4349 online
in films such as The Last Emperor, and about nations such as Russia and
North Korea from James Bond pictures. As for India, films such as Gunga
Din, Jungle Book, A Passage to India, Indiana Jones: Temple of Doom,
Around the World in Eighty Days, Gandhi, Octopussy, and The Man Who
Would Be King might have an impact on how moviegoers in the West
Over a period of time, through repeated exposure to the same or similar
stereotypical depictions across films and across narratives in different media
sites, we unintentionally and often unconsciously start accumulating these
bits and pieces of information about the social group in such a way that
we develop a ‘‘schema’’ or a quick short-cut reference for the social group.
Not surprisingly, when asked to recall the attributes of the social group,
people might recall scenes, characters, lines, settings, and actors from various
films in an attempt to grab whatever little information we can get to make
quick judgments in interpersonal situations. Thus, it is crucial to examine
what types of portrayals of various marginalized groups are presented within
In this context, the current content analysis attempts to examine the
nature of portrayals about India and its peoples represented in feature films
produced in the West. Such an examination not only helps trace the trend
that such portrayals have followed with time but also serves as a first step
in establishing the chain of events between exposure to media stereotypes
and their effects on viewers’ attitudes and behaviors in inter-group interac-
tions with members of stigmatized group.
STEREOTYPES OF RACIAL MINORITIES ACROSS VARIOUS MEDIA
Although one of the first studies that examined the social-psychological
effects of media exposure on racial=ethnic attitudes looked at film content
(Peterson, Thurstone, Shuttlesworth, & May, 1933), more recent research
on racial stereotypical content has been conducted on various other media
sources such as news stories, television programs, music videos, and maga-
zine advertisements (Brown & Campbell, 1986; Coltrane & Messineo, 2000;
Entman, 1992, 1994a, 1994b; Mastro & Greenberg, 2000; Mok, 1998; Oliver,
1994; C. R. Taylor & Lee, 1994; Thomas & Treiber, 2000). With regard to
depictions of racial minorities in American television, for instance, groups
such as Native Americans and Asian Americans remain rather invisible
(Mastro & Greenberg, 2000; Mastro & Stern, 2003). Apart from such gross
under-representation of racial minorities, another major concern is that mem-
bers of these racial groups are often depicted in simplistic, stereotypical
ways. To illustrate, blatant stereotypical depictions of African Americans as
dangerous, lazy, poor, and clownish (Entman, 1992, 1994a, 1994b; Mastro
& Greenberg, 2000; Oliver, 1994) and of Asian Americans as sly, submissive,
244 S. Ramasubramanian
and as ‘model Minorities’ (Mok, 1998) continue to dominate media narratives
(C. R. Taylor & Lee, 1994).
Thus, prior research examining North American media suggests that for-
mulaic depictions of racial minorities such as African Americans, Latinos, and
Asian Americans continue to persist in contexts such as print and television
even in contemporary media channels without much change over time. In
trying to contextualize the study of film vis-a
`-vis these other types of media
where racial depictions have been studied, one can make the argument that
just as racial stereotypes in print and television media have been known to
influence racial attitudes and ethnic identities, film also plays a very
important role in attitude formation. Because of its ability to create a realistic
presentation of real world experiences by combining both audio and
visual modes, cinema has emerged as a powerful medium in shaping the
imagination of its viewers through vivid audio-visual aesthetic experiences.
Moreover, technological innovations have made films available not just in
cinema halls but also on network television, videocassettes, pay-per-view
channels, and on the Internet (Oliver & Kalyanaraman, 2002). Such innova-
tions make repeated viewing of films easily possible for interested audiences,
even if the films are classics produced many years ago. In sum, the pervasive
influence of film as a medium makes it an important source of information in
shaping our perceptions of other cultures, especially because many films are
set in foreign locales.
Although most of the above-mentioned content analyses have focused
on cultural representations and inter-group relations of racial=ethnic groups
within American society, these findings are also help in understanding the
hegemonic processes through which the ‘‘first world’’ subjugates ‘‘third
world’’ nations through imperialistic narratives. Given that the focus of the
current study is on depictions of India in the West, some of the commonly
represented themes in such media texts, as well as some factors that influ-
ence such depictions, are examined next.
REPRESENTATIONS OF THIRD WORLD IN WESTERN NARRATIVES
Depictions of India in the West can be examined from the broader frame-
work of representations of so-called third world countries in Western media.
As a starting point, it is important to examine how the historical and political
contexts of power relations between the first and third World countries influ-
ence media content.
Gallagher (1989) noted that it is usually third world
countries that have to deal with marginalization problems with respect to
information flow. There is a greater flow of information from the first to third
world countries but very little representation of the third world in the first
world (Mowlana & Wilson, 1990). This imbalance in information flow, the
lack of accurate and diverse sources of information, and the absence of racial
India Portrayals 245
minorities in the Western media workforce have been cited as some of the
possible sources for the problem of misrepresentation of these peoples in
the West (Shohat & Stam, 1994).
Such marginalization is not just evident in the lack of third world-related
information in the Western news media but it can also be noted in the absence
of characters and plots from third world countries within entertainment
media. Westerners are almost always at the center of the story and the third
world people, especially women, are given only trivial insignificant roles
(Kaplan, 1997). Even when media content occasionally feature third world
characters, they are very often portrayed in condescending, negative, and
stereotypical ways. For instance, past research on representations of African
people in Western films reveal that they are often portrayed as savage canni-
bals or innocent primitive people (Cameron, 1990; Ukadike, 1990). Whereas
the role of the Western characters is complex in these narratives, those of third
world Characters are simplistic and almost predictable. The latter are usually
present only as embellishments that help define the heroic nature of the
Western characters. Moreover, Shohat (1991) pointed out that even when
Hollywood films include third world locations in their plots, typically such
locations act as the backdrop for the main narrative such that the focus is
on exaggerating socio-religious practices in spectacular ways to act as sym-
bols to signify the place. Although one motivation for use of such cultural
symbols was to orient the audience to the scene locale, such imagery also
served to justify the need to ‘‘civilize’’ third world regions such as India and
Africa by European military rulers and Christian missionaries (Ukadike, 1990).
PORTRAYALS OF INDIA IN WESTERN NARRATIVES
Prior research on portrayals of India reveals similar patterns of subordi-
nation and oppression discussed in the larger context of Third World coun-
tries in general. The history of stereotypical representations of India largely
dates back to colonial rule in India when the narrative accounts and photo-
graphic illustrations by missionaries, anthropologists, and government offi-
cials focused on depicting Indians as savage and uncivil simple folks
(Merchant, 1998; Narayan, 1997). Historically, Europeans portrayed them-
selves as representing liberty, equality, progress, change, and dynamism
in such accounts. In contrast, India was depicted as unhistorical, caught
up with traditions—static, inert, or in a process of decline. Indian national-
ists did not defy such stereotypical depictions but used them instead as an
anchor to justify their fight for freedom from European control. That is, they
argued that Western settlers were an interruption to the traditions and values
of the glorious ancient Indian past. However, even after more that 50 years
of independence of India from European colonizers, post-colonial narratives
of India created not just in Europe but also in North America continue to use
246 S. Ramasubramanian
similar themes of White, Caucasian, Western supremacy (Mitra, 1999;
On one hand, the depictions that focused on depicting India in conde-
scending ways dealt with ‘‘clashes of civilizations’’ where Western characters
‘‘saved’’ India from ancient religious practices such as voodoo and sorcery,
natural disasters such as floods and epidemics, as well as social injustices
such as sati and poverty (Mitra, 1999; Shome, 1996). On the other hand, there
has also been a tendency for certain films produced in the West to depict
India in a dream-like, utopian manner where India is often represented
as the land of milk and honey where overindulgences, excesses, and vices
are an integral part of the culture. The use of such types of seemingly positive
stereotypes has also been referred to as the cultural riches approach
that seemed to portray India as a virgin unexplored land waiting to be
enjoyed by Westerners without acknowledging any anti-colonial sentiments
With respect to the types of character roles assigned to Indians, such
imperialistic discourses portray the Orient as either child-like or demonic.
Specifically, prior research suggests that Indian adult characters take on vil-
lainous, anti-Western roles whereas Indian children are presented as inno-
cent and pro-Western (Shohat & Stam, 1994; Shome, 1996). Such
distinctions suggest the presence of an imagined new India that would break
out of its traditional past and embrace Westernized progress. According to
Mitra (1999), the main motivation for the stereotyping of Indian characters
in Western films is to create a distinction between Western and non-Western
characters. Therefore, the images of peoples from India focus on skin color,
dress, and physical characteristics that serve to create this contrast.
Given that the current content analyses of cinematic portrayals of
India is seen as a first step in understanding the ways in which beliefs, feel-
ings, and behaviors toward Indians are shaped, it is important to examine
prior research on the relationships between media exposure and attitude
EFFECTS OF MEDIA STEREOTYPES ON VIEWERS’ ATTITUDES
From a social-cognitive perspective, the presence of unidimensional stereoty-
pical media portrayals is a cause for concern because viewers often assimilate
such information into longterm memory. Prior research informs us that
exposure to stereotypical media content is accumulated into a generalized
notion about all members of the group that is being portrayed. Such infor-
mation is stored as schemas that act as quick short-cut references (heuristics)
for the social group (Fiske & Taylor, 1991; Hansen & Krygowski, 1994; S. E.
Taylor & Crocker, 1981; Wicks, 1992). In other words, the schematic infor-
mation itself might greatly influence attention, perception, and memory for
India Portrayals 247
newly encountered information about the target group. Apart from storing
and retrieving such schematic information, it is also possible that vivid,
spectacular, concrete, and emotionally charged media exemplars (especially
anecdotes and personalized information) are especially likely to be coded
more effectively in viewers’ minds. Such portrayals, even if they are from
fictional entertainment content, are often retrieved subconsciously when
viewers make evaluations of the stereotyped population (Busselle & Shrum,
2003; Gibson & Zillmann, 2000; Macrae et al., 1998; Zillmann & Brosius, 2000).
From a media cultivation perspective, continued exposure to such for-
mulaic portrayals across various media outlets is likely to influence viewers’
attitudes about out-groups by creating a false notion that portrayals in the
media are close to the real world (Fujioka, 1999; Gerbner, 1998; Gerbner,
Gross, Morgan, Signorielli, & Shanahan, 2002; Shapiro & Lang, 1991).
Therefore, media such as television and films that are able to create a realistic
presentation using both audio and visual modes seem to be especially likely
to create vicarious experiences for viewers, leading to powerful effects on
viewer’s perceptions of social reality. In particular, research studies have
documented the ways in which viewers’ racial attitudes are affected by
long-term exposure to television programming (Armstrong, Neuendorf, &
Brentar, 1992; Busselle & Crandall, 2002; Matabane, 1988). Studies on
inter-group communication have also shown that such effects are especially
more pronounced when there is very little direct contact between groups
(Armstrong et al., 1992; Fujioka, 1999). That is, the media will play an influ-
ential role in shaping opinions and beliefs about out-groups especially when
one has very little chance to interact in meaningful ways with members of
such groups. In the context of the films that were produced about India, it
is highly possible that most of the audience members did not have much
direct contact with people living in India. Therefore, the study of mediated
portrayals is even more crucial, given their more powerful role in influencing
perceptions of India in the West.
With regard to the functional aspects of stigma and prejudice toward
out-groups, social identity theory suggests that members of a group gain
self-esteem by identifying themselves strongly with their own group and by
contrasting themselves from out-groups (Crocker & Major, 1989; Fein &
Spencer, 1997; Tajfel & Turner, 1979). People create emotional and psycho-
logical bonds between their personal self-identity and collective group ident-
ity such that social reality might become categorized as ‘‘us’’ versus ‘‘them’’.
This perspective suggests that people have a need to maintain a favorable
self-image and will therefore be much more positively biased toward their
in-groups but quite negatively disposed toward out-groups. Related to social
identity theory is social comparison theory that suggests that people might
make downward social comparisons with those whom they see as less fortu-
nate for self-enhancement (Festinger, 1954; Wills, 1987). In fact, people might
often resort to putting down members of out-groups so that their in-group
248 S. Ramasubramanian
would appear to be more superior in comparison. Negative stereotypes and
ethnocentrism serve as means of increasing one’s positive identity. Therefore,
these theoretical perspectives help us understand the motivations that might
lead Western film makers to make stark contrasts between the West and the
East within their narratives and also present their in-group (West) as superior.
In summary, prior research suggests that narratives about third world
countries such as India produced in the West might present stereotypical
representations in order to orient audiences to the locale, create distinct
social categories amongst in-groups and out-groups, and create a positive
social identity for in-groups. Such representations might especially be more
influential in shaping attitudes when there are not many opportunities for
one-on-one interactions between in-group and out-group members.
The current study contributes to this literature by systematically analyz-
ing portrayals of India and its people in films made in the United States
and=or the United Kingdom. In particular, it examines whether the films
repeatedly associated India or Indian people with certain characteristics,
including environmental conditions, locals, modes of transportation, lan-
guage, diet, and so forth.
Given that the primary purpose of this project was to examine when, where,
and how India and its people are portrayed within films produced in the
West, the following research questions were proposed:
RQ1: At the scene level, is there a relationship between the country
depicted in a scene (India or outside India), and, the portrayals of
climate, pollution, locales, transportation, animals, religious practices,
leisure activities, status of women and children, and poverty?
RQ2: At the character level, is there a relationship between ethnici-
ty=nationality of a character (Indian and non-Indian), and the role, gen-
der, occupation, class, place of residence, and language of the characters?
Content analysis was used to examine 1,016 scenes and 421 characters from
24 randomly selected movies
The population consisted of feature films produced in the United States
and=or United Kingdom that involved India as one of the primary locales
and=or have Indian characters in their plots. A database of such films was
created using secondary sources of information such as previous literature
India Portrayals 249
on Indian films, video rental charts in Billboard magazine, extensive film
reviews in The Internet Movie Database archives, and filmographies about
third world films such as Mitra (1999), and film catalogues such as those com-
piled by Cyr (1991). From the total population of about 125 films that were
identified from these sources, 24 films were selected using simple random
The appendix lists the films that were selected
randomly for this study.
Films released from 1930 to 2000 have been included for analysis. Film
scholars have stated that the 1930s was when the West started turning toward
other locations in the third world for their film narrative plots (Mitra, 1999)
Therefore, it was decided to go as far back as 1930.
Films produced in
the United Kingdom were included because of the easy availability of such
films to the American viewers, the use of the English language, and the
historical influence of Hollywood on the British film industry.
Units of Analysis
The films were examined at two levels (units of analysis)—scene and charac-
ter. The scene analysis compared portrayals of India and Western countries.
Ascene was defined as a division of the feature film that presented continu-
ous action in one place or a single unit of dialogue taking place in India or/
and within which Indians appear in the narrative.
Overall, there were 1,016 scenes of which 605 were set in India and 411
were set in the West. Dialogue-speaking characters were observed for the
entire film before recording their characteristics. In total there were 421 char-
acters of which 200 were identified as Indian and 221 as non-Indian.
SCENE-LEVEL CODING CATEGORIES
Scene-level variables were composed of environmental variables and socio-
cultural variables. The environmental variables included climate, pollution,
scene locales, modes of transportation, and presence of birds and animals.
Type of climate category included absence or presence of depictions of
and discussions about the climate as being hot and sunny. Pollution was
defined as the absence or presence of depictions of and=or discussions about
dirty streets, unclean waters, spoiled food, noisy locales, or overcrowded
places. Scene locales were inferred based on visual depictions. Stereotypical
locales were defined based on prior research (Mitra, 1999) as places such as
natural environments=jungles, huts, temples, caves, palaces, bazaars, and
trains=railway stations. Non-stereotypical places included all other locales
such as office, street, houses, apartments, shops, hotel=restaurants,
barracks=garrison, prison, courts, and schools. Similarly, scenes were coded
for the absence or presence of depictions of and=or discussions about stereo-
typical modes of transportation such as hand-rickshaws, palanquins, animal
250 S. Ramasubramanian
carts, and steam engine trains, whereas the presence of all other modes of
transportation such as cars, buses, and motor vehicles were coded as non-
stereotypical. Scenes were also coded for absence or presence of depictions
of and=or discussions about birds and animals.
Socio-cultural variables at the scene level included religion, leisure
activities, status of women, and poverty. In terms of religious practices,
scenes were observed for the absence or presence of depictions of and=or
discussions about religious practices including magic, witchcraft, and nature
worship. Leisure activities were coded as the presence or absence of discus-
sions about and=or depictions of art, crafts, and sports. Stereotypical leisure
activities included rope-walking, scorpion-eating, sword-swallowing, fortune-
telling, snake-charming, henna painting, pot painting, playing sports such as
tiger-hunting, polo, and cricket, and depictions of traditional architecture
such as minarets and Hindu temples. Status of women and children was
determined by the absence or presence of depictions and=or discussions
about sati, arranged marriage, child marriage, dowry, slavery, child sacrifice,
child labor, harassment, and rape within the scene. Poverty was defined as
the absence or presence of depictions of and=or discussions about beggars,
famine-stricken people, homeless, tramps, slaves, servants, manual laborers,
subsistence farmers, petty vendors, and fisher folk.
CHARACTER-LEVEL CODING CATEGORIES
Characters were coded for role, gender, race, occupation, class, place of resi-
dence, and language. Based on prior research (Mitra, 1999), stereotypical
occupations were defined as unemployed, homemakers, hunters=gatherers,
farmers, skilled and unskilled laborers (servant, cleaner, fanner, water-
bearer, servers, cart-driver, petty vendors, tourist guides, tailor and secretary,
mahout, snake-charmer), thief=gangster, magician, priest, and prostitute=
pimp. Non-stereotypical occupations were defined as managers, profes-
sionals (such as lawyers and doctors), land-owners, businesspersons, acade-
micians, tourists, military=police personnel, judges, nurses, entertainers=
artists, politicians, missionaries, and students. The class of the characters
was categorized as rich, middle class, or poor based on the character’s attire
and place of residence. Characters were also coded for whether or not they
lived in stereotypical places such as in jungles, on the streets, in huts, tem-
porary dwellings, palaces, temples, and caves.
As part of the analysis, the researcher made additional notes of any rel-
evant images and dialogues that appeared in the films that would further
enrich the descriptive account of the portrayals.
To establish reliability, I and another person familiar with Indian culture
coded the data. The Potter and Levine-Donnerstein’s (1999) modification
India Portrayals 251
of Scott’s pi (Scott, 1955) was used as the basis of calculating inter-coder
reliability. Overall scene reliability was 91%(including country type ¼98%,
climate ¼88%, pollution ¼93%; scene locale ¼82%). Overall character
reliability was 86%(for instance, gender ¼100%; ethnicity ¼100%;
occupation ¼80%; language ¼84%).
The first research question addressed in this study revolved around a scene-
level comparison of scenes located in India and in the West. The results
related to this research question are presented in the following paragraphs
(see Table 1). Qualitative exemplars are provided to enrich the findings.
TYPE OF CLIMATE
Overall climatic conditions portrayed as extreme and uncontrollable were
more likely to be in India (n¼87) than in the West (n¼2); v
p<.001. The sun was often talked of in terms of a foe capable of bringing
great harm and therefore something that Westerners in particular should pro-
tect themselves against. For example in Wee Willie Winkie, a British general
instructs his soldiers that in India ‘‘the sun can kill a man just as surely, just as
swift as a naked bullet.’’
Pollution was associated much more with India (n¼94) as compared to the
West (n¼7); v
¼542.3; p<.001. It was common to find portrayals of dirty
roads, dusty streets, unclean waters, overflowing sewers, marshy streets, and
spoilt foods apart from the presence of garbage, depictions of noisy locales
or overcrowded places (especially bazaars, trains and stations) in scenes
depicting India. Apart from such visual depicters of pollution, there were also
several characters that made verbal references to pollution. For example in
Wee Willie Winkie, a British sergeant reprimands a British boy thus: ‘‘How
many times have I told you that in India everything has to be sterilized—
the food you eat, the water you drink?’’ and at another time, a young Amer-
ican girl is told: ‘‘Don’t eat any fresh fruit, don’t drink any water from the
spoils, don’t ever go out of the Army gates. Keep out of the sun.’’
Traditional stereotypical locales were much more likely to be set in India
(n¼256) rather than in the West (n¼30); v
¼148.3; p<.001. The bazaar
forms a unique and fascinating location for Western film-makers as an ‘‘urban
jungle’’ that is crowded not with trees and undergrowth but people, shops,
252 S. Ramasubramanian
TABLE 1 Scene-Level Analysis of Depictions of India and the West.
Categories Brief description
Climate Hot and sunny 14.5%, 87 0.5%, 2 59.1 p<0.001
Pollution Dirty=dusty streets,
15.5%, 94 1.7%, 7 52.3 p<0.001
caves, palaces, bazaars,
and railway stations
43.3%, 256 7.3%, 30 148.3 p<.001
Rural areas 58.1%, 351 16.5%, 68 174.3 p<.001
Stereotypical modes of
palanquins, animal carts,
and steam engine trains
12.9%, 78 1.5%, 6 42.2 p<.001
Depictions of birds and
animals in jungles, as
urban beasts of
draught, as modes
or as part of discussions
about hunting, sport,
food or diet.
19.2%, 116 2.9%, 12 58.7 p<.001
practices included magic,
witchcraft, and nature
21.7%, 131 4.4%, 18 58.4 p<.001
tiger hunting, polo,
cricket, minarets and
13.2%, 80 3.2%, 13 29.8 p<.001
Status of women
Sati, arranged marriage,
child marriage, dowry,
slavery, child sacrifice,
child labor, harassment,
9.4%, 57 1.0%, 4 30.9 p<.001
Poverty Beggars, famine-stricken
people, homeless, tramps,
slaves, servants, manual
farmers, petty vendors,
and fisher folk
7.9%, 48 1.2%, 5 22.3 p<.001
India Portrayals 253
and animals. The bazaar also becomes a place where ‘‘spectacles’’ and ‘‘mys-
teries’’ such as sword-eating, rope-walking, snake-charming, fire-walking,
and the like take place.
Rural areas were much more likely to be depicted in scenes in India
(n¼351) rather than in the West (n¼68); v
¼174.3; p<.001. Also, towns=
villages in India were much more likely than Western locations to remain
unidentified and unnamed. When they were named, Indian places were
more likely to be given fictitious names, mostly using ‘‘-pur=pore’’ as a suf-
fix. For instance, Ranchipur is the setting for The Rains Came; Tantrapur is
where Gunga Din supposedly take place, while Rajpore is one other such
non-existent town created for the films. Amongst the real urban locales, Cal-
cutta in India and London in the West were the most frequently occurring
MODES OF TRANSPORTATION
Traditional modes of transportation were much more likely to be presented
in scenes portraying India (n¼78) than scenes depicting the West (n¼6);
¼42.2; p<.001. Not surprisingly, in Rains Came, an English Lord com-
ments to an Indian king as follows: ‘‘When I first visited India, I was amazed
to find that you people had so many of the modern conveniences ...these
are the blessing of civilization.’’
BIRDS AND ANIMALS
A greater proportion of scenes that were devoted to featuring birds and ani-
mals were set in India (n¼116) as compared to Western countries (n¼12);
¼58.7; p<0.001. Images of actual animals often appear as part of the
natural jungle, as urban beasts of draught, and as modes of transportation.
Verbal discussions of birds and animals often revolved around hunting,
sport, food, and diet. Animals commonly sighted in films about India were
elephants, snakes (especially cobras and pythons), tigers, horses, scorpions,
panthers, cheetahs, buffalos, cows, monkeys, camels, rats, pigs, bears,
lizards, turtles, owls, monitor lizards, jackals, vultures, vampire bats, insects
(mosquitoes, beetles and other bugs), and alligators. For example, a young
lady (Shirley Temple) visiting India for the first time in the film Wee Willie
Winkie has several questions about the fauna in India. She asks her friend,
‘‘How do you keep mosquitoes from biting your knees?’’ and ‘‘Have you
driven a buffalo before?’’
Religious rituals, superstitious beliefs, magic, and sorcery were more likely to
be presented in Indian settings (n¼131) as compared to scenes in the West
¼58.4; p<.001. The central theme of films such as Gunga Din,
254 S. Ramasubramanian
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and The Deceivers revolves around a
murderous Indian religious cult called ‘‘thuggee’’. Thuggee are shown as
worshippers of Kali, the Hindu Goddess associated with destruction and sor-
cery, who would kill to please her. In Gunga Din, the thuggee religious sect
in introduced as ‘‘the most fiendish band of killers that ever existed’’ and
a religious order honoring ‘‘Kali—the Goddess of blood.’’ Symbols related
to black magic such as blood, skeletons, voodoo dolls and fire were used
to portray Kali as an evil, terrible, powerful force who casts a spell on her
Other Indian religious practices depicted were sati, idol worship, cow
worship, snake worship, tree worship, and river worship. Magical spells, sor-
cery, and witchcraft were depicted using symbols such as bloods, voodoo
dolls, skulls, and skeletons. Fire worship was typically depicted by the use
of fire-torches, lamps, fire cauldrons, and burning grounds for worship. Reli-
gion-related persons and gods tht were depicted were Kali, Krishna, Shiva,
Buddha, holy saints in saffron robestopknotbeard meditating under trees
and priests in temples. Images of Hindu weddings, dancing with incense=
fire, doing ‘‘namaskar’’ gesture as prayer, golden temples, and statues and
chanting of Sanskrit Hindu hymns were depicted in such scenes. Superstition
regarding months of the year and the auspiciousness of seeing certain ani-
mals figured in some of the films.
There was significantly greater number of scenes of stereotypical leisure
activities depicted in India (n¼80) than in the West (n¼13); v
p<.001. In Chutney Popcorn, for instance, henna-painting is repeatedly
used as a visual reminder of the Indian ethnicity of the lead role character.
In films like The Man Who Would be King,The Jungle Book,The River,
and Wee Willie Winkie, a series of images of fortune-telling, scorpion-eating,
sword-juggling and the like are used to define an Indian bazaar.
STATUS OF WOMEN AND CHILDREN
The number of scenes in which women and children were portrayed as vic-
tims of abuse was much greater in scenes set in India (n¼57) that those set
in the West (n¼4); v
¼30.9; p<.001. Women and children in India were
often shown as being victims of a socio-religious-cultural system. For
example, in The Autobiography of a Princess portrays the following dis-
Princess: ‘‘Ours wasn’t a backward state. Not compared to others.’’
Cyril Saab: ‘‘There were worse.’’
Princess: ‘‘Much worse. When you think of Tadpur, child sacrifices, so
many cases of Sati, we hardly had any Sati at all.’’
India Portrayals 255
Similarly in The River, the protagonist explains the arranged marriage of
an Indian girl: ‘‘Then her father told her that she must marry a man of his
choice ...that’s the ancient custom.’’ In this film, Harriet, an English girl, talks
about how Indian parents are disappointed when they have a girl baby
because they need to get a dowry. In City of Joy, the main Indian character,
Hazari, says several times how important a duty it is for a father to save
money of his daughter’s dowry. Similarly, in Around the World in Eighty
Days, the British lead character Phileas Fogg saves an Indian princess from
sati just like Indiana Jones in the film, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
saves starved children from bonded labor in the clutches of an evil cult.
Among scenes that portrayed poverty in these films, a significantly greater
proportion was likely to be in Indian scenes (n¼48) rather than in the West-
ern scenes (n¼5); v
¼22.3; p<.001. Scenes with poor people were
usually depicted as a backdrop as part of the crowd in Indian streets and
as helpers in British colonial quarters in India. However, in films such as City
of Joy,Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and Black Narcissus, poverty
forms an important part of the plot itself. In such films, the Western charac-
ters (often missionaries) are portrayed as ‘‘good Samaritans’’ who save the
poor and wretched in India. Apart from actual depictions of poverty, there
were also many discussions amongst characters about poverty. For instance,
in Foreign Body, there are references made to poverty by using phrases such
as ‘‘thousands sleeping in the street’’ and ‘‘the black hole of Calcutta.’’
The second research question focused on the character level assessment of
any significant differences in portrayals of Indian versus non-Indian charac-
ters in the movies that were examined in this study. The results of these
analyses are presented below (see Table 2).
The lead roles in the coded films were slightly more likely to be played by
non-Indian characters (n¼18) as compared to non-Indian characters
There were more male characters than female ones in the films included in
this sample. However, the gender divide was much more pronounced
amongst Indian characters as compared to non-Indian characters with
slightly more male characters that were Indian (n¼150) as compared to
Western (n¼137); v
256 S. Ramasubramanian
The findings suggest that stereotypical occupations were much more likely to
be taken on by Indian characters (n¼126) as compared to non-Indians
¼31.3; p<.0001. In talking about the state of employment,
the main character Ram Das in Foreign Body comments that ‘‘Calcutta was
bulging at the seems with unemployed men’’. Several films show Indian ser-
vants sweeping the floors, working in the garden, tending to horses, carrying
luggage on the head, bowing and saluting, serving food, and doing manual
labor in the sun as a back-drop to the main narrative.
Characters depicted as poor were much more likely to be Indian (n¼88)
rather than non-Indian characters (n¼20); v
¼67.9; p<.001. Poor people
were defined as those who wore rags, tatters, worked as laborers, beggars,
slaves and vendors, and lived in huts, temporary shelters or in the wild.
On the other hand, upperclass people were those who wore expensive
clothes in silk, jewelry, lived in palatial homes (e.g., palaces and mansions),
and could afford several luxuries like big feasts, servants, and so on, and,
middle-class persons were those who could afford casual clothes are those
TABLE 2 Character-Level Analysis of Depictions of Indian and Non-Indian Characters.
Categories Brief description India (%,n) West (%,n)v
Role Characters in lead role 9.0%, 18 17.6%, 39 6.7 p<0.01
Gender Characters who are male 75.0%, 150 62.0%, 137 7.7 p<0.01
Occupation Characters depicted in
such as hunters, farmers,
thieves, magicians, priests,
unemployed people and
laborers (such as servants,
water-bearers, petty vendors,
tourist guides, mahouts,
66.0%, 126 37.6%, 74 31.3 p<0.001
Class Characters depicted as poor as
inferred from their attire
and place of residence
44.7%, 88 9.2%, 20 67.9 p<.001
Characters depicted as living
in stereotypical places such
as in jungles, on the streets,
in huts, temporary dwellings,
palaces, temples, and caves
65.7%, 88 12.0%, 16 80.7 p<0.001
Language Characters depicted as speaking
Indian languages and
83.5%, 167 1.8%, 4 290.4 p<0.001
India Portrayals 257
that are in good shape (not tattered), live in houses or apartments, and have a
reasonable but not luxurious lifestyle.
PLACE OF RESIDENCE
Characters’ features are residing in stereotypical places were much more
likely to be Indian characters (n¼88) than non-Indian characters
¼80.7; p<.001. Stereotypical places were defined as the wild
(especially jungles), on the streets (homeless), huts, temporary dwellings,
palaces, temples, caves, and dens. On the other hand, both Indian and
non-Indian characters were almost equally likely to reside in non-stereotypi-
cal places such as houses, apartments, mansions, schools, and garrisons. In
City of Joy, for example, the central character, Hazari, and his family are
shown living in the streets, slums and in dilapidated huts while Mowgli from
The Jungle Book spends almost his entire life living in the wild jungles of
Characters speaking Indian languages (such as Hindi) and in accented Indian
English were much more likely to be Indian (n¼167) than non-Indian char-
acters (n¼4); v
¼290.4; p<.001. Western characters on the other hand,
spoke Western English and hardly any Indian languages. Sometimes Indian
characters actually spoke in gibberish nonsensical language that was meant
to represent an Indian language. Indian characters were also more likely to
be showing talking in broken English and heavily accented English. For
example, in Stiff Upper Lips, the British Uncle not only imitates the Indian
accent but also says that non-verbal signs like ‘‘wobbling the head from side
to side’’ are a part and parcel of Indian English. Similarly, in The Party, the
Indian character called Bakshi talks in an exaggerated heavily accented
Indian English with peculiar choice of words and grammer (e.g., ‘‘I want
to be going to...’’, ‘‘I am not understanding you’’). In the Foreign Body,an
Englishman says to the Indian character: ‘‘I guessed you were Indian when
you telephoned. I could always tell by your voice.’’
In summarizing the results, in appears that depictions of hot, polluted, mostly
rural in nature locales (e.g., bazaars, palaces, huts, jungles, caves, and tem-
ples filled with animals) and traditional modes of transport (such as hand-
rickshaws and elephant rides) are much more often represented in scenes
located in India rather than in the West. Depictions of religious practices
(such as nature worship and sorcery), abuse of women and children (such
as sati and dowry), and people engaged in stereotypical leisure activities
(such as snake-charming, fire-walking, rope-walking) were also more likely
258 S. Ramasubramanian
to be featured in Indian settings rather than non-Indian settings in these
feature films. Characters portrayed as poor, having traditional occupations
(such as hunters, magicians, and dance girls), living in stereotypical places
(such as huts and jungles), and speaking exaggerated accented English were
more likely to be Indian as compared to non-Indian. In short, the above find-
ings suggest that a definitive pattern of stereotypical portrayals of India
appears in films made in the West.
Overall, the imagery of India seems to be created to make clear-cut dis-
tinctions to emphatically categorize it as an out-group. Such biased portrayals
are not limited to specific movies but repeat themselves across narrative.
Therefore, these stereotypical portrayals are not reflections of the idiosyn-
cratic preferences of individual creators of media content but seem to be a
part of the larger societal meanings and myths existing in the West about
‘‘Indian-ness.’’ Existence of such shared cultural stereotypes as opposed to
individual stereotypical beliefs makes it easier for people in power to dis-
criminate against out-groups in ways that are legitimized by social institutions
and eventually leading to institutional prejudice. Therefore mediated cultural
stereotypes may shape the collective consciousness of negative prejudicial
attitudes of Western audiences towards India as a whole.
Also, it is possible that negative stereotypes in media serve as a means of
downward social comparisons in order to boost the self-image of Western
audiences. Such comparisons have implications for social justifications that
could be provided for cultural imperialism of the West by establishing Indian
peoples as inferior and incompetent who need to be civilized. It also sug-
gests the kinds of prejudicial feelings of paternalism and pity that could be
seen as appropriate toward inept subordinates. Further research needs to
explore the relationships between cultural stereotypical traits and emotional
feelings toward out-groups.
At the individual-viewer level, social cognitive media effects perspec-
tives inform us that such stereotypical portrayals may lead to formation of
‘‘schemas’’ for India as well as make vivid mediated exemplars easily access-
ible while making social judgments. These perceptions and evaluations in
turn are likely to impact the ways we act towards with these people in
real-life encounters. Thus, in a global space, while interacting with the
flesh-and-blood persons from around the world, we may also be responding
at a less conscious level to the cultural memories that we already have of
these groups of people. Therefore, given that mediated experiences often
color one’s perceptions and feelings about a stereotyped group, an increased
awareness and critical media viewing skills may be useful. Future experi-
mental research needs to be conducted to examine how exposure to stereo-
typical media content might influence perceptions and feelings of U.S.
audiences towards people living in third world countries such as India.
Not only will the types of stereotypes found in the media have implica-
tions of Western audience but also for members of the stigmatized groups in
India Portrayals 259
terms of self-stereotyping effects of exposure to such portrayals. With the
increased availability of Western media products in third world countries,
it is likely that even viewers belonging to the stereotyped group might re-
conceptualize their own identities based on their encounters with media por-
trayals of their group in the dominant culture. In other words, stereotypical
depictions in mainstream media might dictate what are expected and accept-
able behaviors by members of target groups, especially in terms of interper-
sonal interactions with members of other groups (Armstrong et al., 1992;
Ford, 1997; Mastro & Tropp, 2004). Such imagined identities then influence
what is the acceptable social norm for behaviors, dress, and other cultural
symbols for the minority group. Adherence by minority group members to
these stereotypical roles further strengthens the notion that the stereotypes
Perhaps one effective way for people who belong to the marginalized
stereotyped groups to reclaim and reconstruct their own histories is to
directly participate in media production by making their voices heard in
the process of creations of media narratives about their group. That is, racial
and ethnic diversity in the media workplace may be crucial to inclusion of
less stereotypical and more varied portrayals of minority groups. However,
the mere presence of people from diverse nations and racial backgrounds
in a workplace in itself may not be as effective as allowing such individuals
to express themselves freely and participate in dialogical conversations such
that their inputs are listened to respectfully.
Further research needs to trace how stereotypes about India have chan-
ged with time and whether these changes can be attributed to socio-political-
economic inter-dependencies among first and third world countries.
Although a similar analysis was attempted in the current study, the small sam-
ple size of 25 films restricted the scope of such analyses to provide any mean-
ingful conclusions. Such an examination would help understand if
stereotypes are resistant to change, making them rather stable across time.
In terms of methodological implications, the findings of the current
study help us understand that stereotypes should be treated as multi-dimen-
sional concepts. Traditionally, stereotypes have been defined narrowly in
terms of personality traits associated with members of a group. In contrast,
a broader conceptualization of stereotypes has been used for this study,
encompassing not just personality traits but also socio-cultural characteristics
such as poverty, calamities, and so on. In addition, cultural stereotypes of
Indians revealed in the current study encompass several negative as well
as seemingly positive beliefs. For instance, Indians were seen as having many
riches. However, past research studies have shown that even positive stereo-
types (e.g., ‘‘model minorities’’ for Asian Americans) could lead to stereoty-
pical attitudes and even discrimination because they do not acknowledge
the differences amongst a group of people and lead to unrealistic associa-
tions of certain traits with certain groups of people (Lee, 1996; Wu, 2002).
260 S. Ramasubramanian
Future researchers would also benefit from taking into consideration
some of the limitations of this study. For instance, while the current study
only included films produced in the United Kingdom, and the United States,
scholars interested in further research in this area could also consider other
European countries that colonized India (such as Netherlands and Portugal)
and countries whose scholars have actively translated many Indian texts
(such as Germany and France). In addition, stereotypes and marginalization
of the third world could also be studied in other media contexts such as
literature (fictional novels, children’s literature, textbooks), print media
(news stories, cartoons, magazines), and new media such as the Internet.
While content analyses like the present one cannot determine cause-and-
effect relationships between media exposure to people from the Third World
and behavioral outcomes such as hate crimes and institutional prejudice,
such research serves as the first step toward untangling these complex
inter-related yet socially relevant links apart from motivating media creators
in the West to consider alternative, complex, less stereotypical representa-
tions for peoples of other cultures.
1. There has been a long history of the use of terms such as developing countries, Third World
nations etc. I use the term Third World and First World merely to refer to the differences between these
two worlds but do not mean to suggest the superiority of one over the other. The First World and the
West are used interchangeably in this paper. These terms are used to denote European-North American
2. Originally 30 films were selected randomly using random number generator software. Six of them
were excluded from the study since they did not fit the study profile either because they did not feature
Indians (for example, they featured American Indians) or did not feature India (for example, they featured
islands in the Bay of Bengal but not in India) or were not full-length feature films (for example, they were
mini-series for television audiences).
3. At the time of data collection for this project, only movies released until the year 2000 were avail-
able on VHS or DVD format. Hence the end data was decided as 2000.
4. The West was defined as the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Europe, Australia, and
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APPENDIX: LIST OF FILMS RANDOMLY CHOSEN FOR ANALYSIS
(IN ALPHABETICAL ORDER)
Around the World in Eighty Days
Autobiography of a Princess
City of Joy
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
Jungle Book, The
Little Princess, The
Man Who Would be King
Rains Came, The
Sammy and Rosie Get Laid
Shadows on the Stairs
Stiff Upper Lips
Wee Willie Winkie
When Knights Were Bold
India Portrayals 265